Quis custodiet ipso custodes
Nos vigilo custodes.
Indeed we do.
I’ve been struggling with how to review this movie since I walked out of the theater last night.
A few weeks ago someone asked me to explain “Watchmen” to them, and my response was “there is no way I can possibly give you an adequate explanation without telling you the entire story”; and that’s the problem I face here.
This could easily either be a 20 page mass of spoilers, shoutouts, pleasures and gripes, with some substance to it; or it can be a single paragraph or two, with some meaningless superlatives and diminutives.
I’m going to try and split the difference, and explain what I think is good and not so good about the movie; while keeping it relatively simple, and relatively spoiler free.
Why am I reviewing it for this site? Because Watchmen is very much a libertarian movie.
At a high level, it is a denunciation of popular fascism and oligarchy. At a deeper level, one of the central dilemmas of the movie is the conflict between objectivism, absolutism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism.
First things first, “Watchmen” is the best adaptation of a comic book into a film ever released.
This does not mean it is the “best comic book movie ever”; because I think that “Dark Knight”, “Iron Man”, and possibly “Spiderman 2” were better as straight films. Watchmen is a better adaptation, and there is a big difference there.
Is it a good movie? Oh very much yes. However, it is a confusing, thickly layered, EXTREMELY violent, and disturbing film; with so much detail you need to see it multiple times to get it all.
On one level, it works as a straightforward action film. The fights and other action sequences are great; and the pacing and plotting work to keep everything moving and flowing.
Just as a “comic book film” it also works. The cinematography, production design, and costuming are amazing. For those of that persuasion, Malin Ackerman is unbelievably hot. For the other side, Billy Crudup is very, very naked for the entire film (and surprisingly good, in a VERY difficult roles). Jacky Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson all gave spectacular performances as Rorschach, the Comedian, and Night owl respectively.
As a morality play and social satire it works as well. Importantly, it is not just a nearly 3 hour gigantic anti-American anti-conservative rant, as some web sites are claiming (the GN was somewhat more so, but not so much as most people seem to think. As I said above, it is essentially libertarian in nature).
It is an indictment of many things in modern western culture without a doubt (though more subtle in this than the graphic novel), but I don’t think you could call it anti-American.
It is however, very much, anti-superhero… or more specifically anti-superman (in the neitzcheian ubermensch sense) in particular. Who watches the watchmen indeed.
The whole story and concept behind Watchmen is a very strong indictment of the “perfect man” concept in political and social philosophy (which isn’t what it sounds like. If you aren’t familiar, there’s a lot of research you need to do to bring yourself up to speed).
At core, the political and philosophical underpinning of Watchmen, is an exhortation to individual integrity, morality, and sovereignty.
Which of course is why so many people don’t understand it; because for many, the entire notions of true individualism and liberty are alien.
So what didn’t work?
Nixon… in fact all of the politicians, captains of industry etc… portrayed in the film were nothing more than thinly drawn caricatures, used almost for comic relief. They should have had a creepy menace to them, but the makeup and performance choices Snyder made reduces them to parody.
I thought Matthew Goode was horrible as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias. His characterization was ridiculous, and wooden at the same time.
Malin Ackerman, though amazingly beautiful with great screen presence, has the emotive range of a turnip. I’ve noted this in her other roles, so you can’t blame the writing.
Also, given that same writing, Jacky Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson gave great performances; so again, you can’t blame the writing.
Other than that, my criticisms are structural.
The fact is, there is only so much material you can pack into a movie. Even at a 2:45 runtime (yes, it really is that long. No, you don’t notice) this movie is busting at the seams, and still has to cut about 1/3 of the content of the graphic novel (1/2 if you count the “black freighter” material, which was made available as web videos, and will be released on DVD in two weeks).
I think they made the best choices possible given the constraints they were under. They chose to focus primarily on the main storyline, with reasonably well done fill-ins and exposition of the back story.
The thing that makes this just a good movie and not a great movie (and what in fact might have positioned it as an oscar contender, and I mean that quite seriously) is the missing or abbreviated backstory.
Without it, the characters of Sally and Laurie Juspeczyk/Jupiter i.e. the Silk Specter I and II; and that of Hollis Mason and Dan Dreiberg i.e. Nightowl I and II; are all somewhat thinly drawn.
Some things in the film appear to have very little or very thin motivation behind them. This is especially true of the actions of Ozymandias.
Silouhette, and the other watchmen, are essentially left out entirely; barely mentioned in passing. They were still minor characters in the GN, or more specifically subsidiary characters only slightly linked to the main plotline; but there was much more to them than in the film, and I think the film suffers a bit for it.
Also, the motivations of Dr. Manhattan, and the impact of the personal choices he makes are somewhat muddied or lost without that fuller backstory (and especially without a more fully fleshed Silk Specter).
I have to balance that criticism against the sheer effort of trying to fit it all in. To fully flesh out that background would take at least 5 hours.
As I understand it, the script as shot came in at over three and a half hours, and even with what they left in the script, they had to cut 45 minutes to make time (and to be sure of an R and not an NC-17). I do hope that with the Blu-Ray release, we get a full unrated extended cut.
Some fans of the GN are disappointed that the movie isn’t even darker, more violent, and more disturbing etc… Personally, I think they did an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere (excepting the characterization of Nixon… they missed the boat completely there); and they pulled no punches on the violence or sex.
Yes, there was even more violence, and more sex (and more sexual violence for that matter) in the GN; but it wasn’t necessary for that to be in the movie. Believe me, we got the point.
There is one VERY different twist to things from the GN that has hardcore purists pissed off; but in the end makes much more sense from a story, and dramatic perspective.
Overall, I’m going to give Watchmen a very strong recommendation. I think they made the most faithful possible adaptation of one of the greatest graphical novels of all time; and the result was a very good movie. My only reservation is that it could have been a great movie, but it would have required another hour of screen time.